BWW Review: Jobsite Theater Presents Israel Horovitz's LEBENSRAUM at the Shimberg
Renowned playwright Israel Horovitz, working directly with Jobsite Theater, has a knack for making a faux premise seem rivetingly real and yet thrillingly theatrical in LEBENSRAUM, which plays at the Shimberg thru January 31st.
The idea is fascinating: For the first time since the Holocaust, a guilty Germany decides to allow a "living space"--a Lebensraum--to 6 million Jews. Told as a sort of documentary, with three talented actors inhabiting over 50 roles and also acting as narrators, it's a fast-paced, whirlwind ride in a story that plays as if it's actually happening. It's like the stage version of The 39 Steps meets An Apartment in Berlin.
Horovitz has always been one of my favorite playwrights. His intense, Obie-winning Indian Wants the Bronx introduced Al Pacino to the New York stage, and his Line is an Absurdist masterpiece. I also enjoy Park Your Car In Harvard Yard, The Primary English Class, Acrobats, It's Called the Sugar Plum and Sins of the Mother, the latter showcased as a successful staged reading with Jobsite last year. I'm even a fan of his movie scripts, including his adaptation of The Strawberry Statement (a cult film if ever there was one) and Author! Author! (an autobiographical comedy as well as box office dud starring Al Pacino; I felt very alone in the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed it).
With LEBENSRAUM, Horovitz hits so many points, maybe too many. There's a lot going in its 100 minute running time, and it's an extremely busy show, rarely pausing for breath. It's a mish-mash at times, where everything imaginable seems to be thrown into the theatrical gumbo (including a not-very-funny scene involving a sock puppet). Is it a drama? An imaginary, educational variety show? A mockumentary? It's the type of show where a piece of luggage is used as a camera, and a broom fills in for a microphone; where the stage manager sweeps the stage at the beginning and then calls the actors to begin. It's all over the place. One thing is for sure, we know we're in Horovitz Land here, so you know it's going to be beautifully written, quirky, funny at times, heartbreaking, supremely imaginative, filled with love, and complete with references to Jews in Gloucester, Massachusetts and to, yes, the Beastie Boys (Horovitz's son is Beastie Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz).
Busy as it is, two story lines really stand out, and we wonder if perhaps the show would work even better if it just focused on those two stories in a straight forward work. There are a plethora of characters to sift through here, but the two strongest stories are so compelling that maybe it doesn't need all of the busy theatrics and multiple characters. But since it has taken this route, I'm glad that Jobsite has cast three clever, energetic, likable actors who are able to inhabit all of the roles. They give lessons in versatility. The three hard-working performers are running around the stage constantly, changing accents and costumes, adding hats or mustaches, and it's awesome to see them create an entire world before our eyes.
Leading the way is Ned Averill-Snell who commands the stage like few others in our area. He also has the claim to fame of creating the oddest accent I have ever heard onstage (German-Australian); see the play--or rather hear it--just to experience that. Also, Averill-Snell has the finest scene in the show. A revenge sequence featuring a Jew speaking to the sickly woman who turned his family over to the Germans during the Holocaust; he vows to use slow torment rather than quick murder in his revenge. With the actor using a toy piano, it is an astonishing moment of theater, a thing of beauty. And the toy piano adds just the right effect, really underscoring Horovitz's words. Chilling.
Derrick Phillips is fine here as well in numerous parts. Sometimes his German accent is hard to understand, and he loses the ends of some important lines. But playing a 15-year-old Jewish boy, Sam, who moves to Germany with his family, he comes to life and gives a touching, very real performance. You actually think he's 15 up there, even though physically we know he's not. It's stupendous.
Katrina Stevenson also holds her own in a variety of roles. She's so sweet and open in one of her roles--as a German girl who never met a Jew before; when she finally does, it's Sam, and we root for them. Her first kiss with Sam is extraordinarily touching and, aside from the aforementioned toy piano scene, the finest moment of the play.
Brian M. Smallheer's set looks like a wooden labyrinth; you do get the feeling of a loading dock of sorts. Ryan Finzelber's lighting design does the job without getting in the way. The sound is most effective. Best of all, David Jenkins' direction is top notch. He makes the most of the script, keeping it at a frantic pace and bringing out some lovely characterizations, especially in the relationship between the two teens played by Phillips and Stevenson.
LEBENSRAUM deals with the Holocaust and its effect on modern life, and it needs to be seen. You get to experience what happens when people either re-live the past without learning its lessons or overcompensate for history's many sins. It all culminates in those two very important words: "Never forget." Never forget what a group of German people did many decades ago, where they let fear and hate overwhelm them, where they shunned the better angels of human nature to become finger-pointing devils. And we know where that eventually led.
Never forget because this could happen today, maybe even in our own country, maybe even in 2016. Where fear and hate are driving an election, where the voters want some charismatic figure to articulate their rage for them, and where the ultimate outcome is quite precarious. Maybe if those consumed with so much vitriol could see LEBENSRAUM, then they would think twice about the way they're treating the "boogey men" of today (Muslims, immigrants). But I guess that's the sad truth about history, which LEBENSRAUM certainly touches on: Even when we are given extreme warnings, even when we can see what the horrors of the past have wrought, we still make the same mistakes over and over again.